Helen Wadham - The power of one individual's story

Fundraisers can learn a lot from the story of the Chilean miners, says the associate lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University

Helen Wadham
Helen Wadham

The second miner to emerge after 69 days underground, Mario Sepulveda, breaks away from hugging his wife to hand round rocks as souvenirs to the cheering crowd - an iconic moment during the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners in October, one of the biggest and longest-running news stories of recent times.

Millions of us held back tears as Esteban Rojas, the 18th miner to emerge, fell to his knees and raised his hands to the sky.

What is it about this story that is so universally appealing - and what lessons can we take from it for our fundraising work?

The story of the Chilean miners is, of course, a powerful and unique drama.

However, it's the individual stories that render it real and tangible, enabling viewers across the world to empathise with the plight of a community of strangers thousands of miles away.

Research by Adrian Sargeant, the fundraising professor at Indiana University in the US, and colleagues shows that facilitating such a connection is crucial to effective fundraising: involving donors in an unfolding story effectively enables them to play a role by donating.

So the Chilean story is a reminder that the ever-increasing demand for metrics will take us only so far. What establishes that connection is emotion rather than reason or statistical evidence.

As events unfolded, we imagined ourselves in that situation. As the order of evacuation was being worked out, we wondered whether we too would have volunteered to be last on the list.

Again, to rethink this from a fundraising perspective, it is the individual story in the bigger picture that is so powerful.

The American researchers Cynthia Cryder and George Loewenstein found that people tend to respond more generously to appeals on behalf of clearly identified individuals (see Fact file, right).

They also found that to highlight a need without this link can even backfire by making people feel that their contributions are mere drops in the ocean.

There are probably lessons we can take from the quick-witted marketing team at Oakley, who apparently gained free advertising worth $41m (£25.7m) by giving the miners sunglasses. Or the deftness with which the Chilean President Sebastian Pinera cast himself as a central character in the story.

But perhaps the biggest lesson is that, in an increasingly fractured world, there will always be stories that bring us all together if we can only tell them in the right way.

FACT FILE - Putting a face to an issue

-In their research into the link between tangibility and generosity, Cynthia Cryder and George Loewenstein explored the success of One Pack = One Vaccine, a marketing campaign for Pampers in South Africa on behalf of Unicef. They found that people buying nappies responded more generously to identified beneficiaries; by using a purchase to support the provision of a tetanus vaccine, the shopper had been "transformed into an activist, a humanitarian and a hero or heroine".

-In a study on the 'identified victim' effect by Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, participants were asked to donate money to help a child in need of medical treatment. When the child was identified by age, name and picture, the research found that participants were willing to donate 75 per cent more than when the description of the child omitted these identifying features.

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